“The Optimist’s Daughter” by Eudora Welty

What can we do but enumerate old themes? Love, loss, death, remembrance, and the passage of time that allows us fresh glimpses into these familiar things … It is hard to imagine a time when serious artists won’t want to address such matters. No hankering for novelty can remove these things from the centre of our lives. What is there to be said on these matters that is new? Has not all that can be said already been said?

Perhaps the answer to that question is that it is not a matter of saying anything new about them. Or, indeed, a matter of saying anything at all. For no-one addressing these themes do so because they wish to impart some sort of message: any message capable of being expressed on these matters is, almost inevitably, too superficial. But we can contemplate. Not contemplate to arrive at some sort of answer, or even to arrive at some sort of resolution, but contemplate simply because we cannot help ourselves. And each contemplation is new, because each perspective is personal, individual. We live, we love, and then we die, and those remaining remember. We know ‘tis common – all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity – but there is little point asking why it seems so particular with us. We know not “seems”.

These old themes are unapologetically at the centre of The Optimist’s Daughter, a short novel, and Eudora Welty’s last, published in the 1970s in her old age. In its concentration, it is almost a short story. Its principal character, Laurel, now living in Chicago, returns to her homeland in the South: her aged father is ill. At first, it does not seem very serious: a standard eye operation. But he fails to recover. His second wife, the vulgar, frivolous, and self-obsessed Fay, much younger than her frail husband, has little sympathy with death; but although she may think that she is on the side of life, she isn’t: life can mean but little if the significance of death fails to inspire awe, or even, as in this instance, adequate acknowledgement. She urges her husband to live – not for his own sake, but for her own. Possibly, she is responsible, in her thoughtlessness, for hastening her husband’s end. But it all means little to her: she is incapable of contemplation, and cannot even begin to understand why it all seems so particular with others. However, for Laurel, the last link with her past is now gone. Her mother had died years earlier; and her husband had died in the war. Though but middle-aged, no-one is now left alive with whom she retains any strong emotional tie: all whom she had loved are now dead. What can she do but remember?

Her remembering is largely left till the closing parts of the novel. The earlier parts of the novel describe, with all the economy of a great writer of short stories, Laurel’s father’s last illness, and the network of relationships between the old man and his young wife, and between father and daughter. The events move swiftly, as the old man fails to recover from what had appeared initially a routine operation; and as the wife, impatient with thoughts of death, and resentful that her feelings (she had felt the operation unnecessary) were being ignored, unwittingly and thoughtlessly hastens his end. At the funeral, Laurel meets again with her old neighbours, and old family friends, but finds herself feeling distant from it all. Her childhood home will now be passing on to Fay. The past is receding quickly. And, unexpectedly, Fay’s redneck family, turn up. She had said previously that she had no family, and it is not hard to conjecture why: even with her limited intelligence, she knew that they would not be approved of.

The resolution of the novel comes when, towards the end, Laurel is left on her own for a while in the old house that she knows she must soon leave for ever. And it is here that all that had gone previously, all that may have seemed fragmentary, fall into place, and we see them in proper focus. Here, at last, Laurel can think about a past that has left nothing behind, that can now exist only in her memory. Now she can re-evaluate.

Re-evaluation of the past, contemplating on why things have turned out as they have, understanding the ground we have occupied in relation to those whom we have loved, are the themes also of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night; but the past there had been turbulent. The past here seems, in contrast, placid and happy. But, as in O’Neill’s play, love and hatred are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps all loves contain some element of hatred.

A new character, only mentioned in passing earlier in the novel, now emerges in the foreground: Laurel’s dead mother. As Laurel’s mind shifts back and forth between the present and various times from the past, she remembers how she had reacted to her mother’s long illness and eventual death; and she remembers also how her mother had reacted to her parents’ death. A chain emerges, a human chain, of departing and of remembering, stretching back over time, across generations.

Her mother, like her father, had also lost her sight towards the end (vision, and lack of it, are among the recurring images of this novel), but, unlike her father’s, her mother’s illness had been a long one. She had, one suspects, never quite managed to tear herself away emotionally from her strong attachment to her family home in West Virginia – “up home”: for all her closeness to her husband, the home he offered in Mississippi never quite matched up to what she left behind, and the breaking, one by one, of her ties with her past – the death of her father, of her mother – had been for her particularly traumatic. And during her own long, final illness, her mind had deteriorated – or, as Fay puts it, “she died a crazy”. Laurel’s mother had been, towards the end, in despair, and her husband, though loving her, could not acknowledge the nature of the tragedy they were living through:

He loved his wife. Whatever she did that she couldn’t help doing was all right. Whatever she was driven to say was all right. But it was not all right! Her trouble was that very desperation. And no-one had any power to cause that except the one she desperately loved, who refused to consider that she was desperate. It was betrayal on betrayal.

Her loving husband, Laurel’s loving father, is an “optimist”: his nature is such that he cannot even bring himself to believe that certain things are beyond the reach merely of our loving; he could not bring himself to acknowledge the essential tragedy of our lives – the losses, the pains, the passing through nature to eternity.

As Laurel goes through her mother’s things, destroying all which she does not wish to come into Fay’s possession, her mind travels back and forth in time, remembering, interpreting, trying to understand. All the while, a storm is coming; and a bird that has flown down the chimney is trapped inside the house. Symbols, certainly, but to try to pin down these symbols is reductive: better, I think, to take these pieces of imagery at face value, and allow them to resonate in our minds. The course of Laurel’s thoughts may seem random, but they are carefully structured. And finally, her mind turns to her husband, Phil, killed at war:

If Phil could have lived –

But Phil was lost. Nothing of their life together remained except in her own memory; love was sealed away into its perfection, and had remained there.

What might have been, what might have emerged from their love, cannot disrupt that perfection in which it is now sealed.

There remains only a final confrontation with Fay before Laurel leaves for ever her childhood home. Laurel had wanted to hurt Fay, but when the time comes, it doesn’t seem worth it:

She had been ready to hurt Fay. She had wanted to hurt her, and had known herself capable of doing it. But such is the strangeness of her mind, it had been the memory of the child Wendell that had prevented her.

Wendell was a child who had been with Fay’s ghastly family that had descended so unexpectedly on the funeral. And he, at least, was blameless. Laurel does not know why the memory of that child should now prevent her from hurting Fay: she puts it down vaguely to “strangeness of her mind”.

Fay ends, as she thinks, triumphant: “I belong to the future,” she declares. And Laurel lets her have her moment of triumph because she knows this is not true.

Memory lived not in initial possession, but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.

These are all old, old themes. Welty’s perspective is quiet and unassuming. She meditates, as Laurel does, on the nature of loss, and of memory, that fragile and delicate thing that is nonetheless the sole remaining link to that which has been lost. But Welty is also utterly unsentimental: she is well aware of the deep resentment and hatred that can reside even within the most selfless and devoted love; and how even the most buoyant of optimism can be a denial of our lives’ tragedies – a denial almost of life itself. Love does not conquer all, and it is mere foolishness imagining otherwise.

This is a quite exquisite novel from one of the century’s finest writers.

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